Wednesday, 07 September 2016

The Tale of the Split that Brought Down Turkey

Published in Articles

By Svante E. Cornell

September 6, 2016

The July 15 coup has devastated the Turkish state, left institutions hollow, and inflicted a lasting trauma on the population. It is now increasingly clear that the state in Turkey was essentially torn to shreds by a ferocious battle between two Islamic sects led by uncompromising, larger than life personalities: Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Fethullah Gülen. To fully grasp the implications of the coup requires revisiting the history of the relationship. 


BACKGROUND: A month after July 15, it is increasingly clear that the prime dynamic in the failed coup that shook Turkey to its core was the fierce battle between President Erdogan and the movement composed of adherents of the exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen. This is mind-boggling for a number of reasons. First, it suggests the main dynamic of Turkish politics is not a traditional left-right or even a secular-Islamic divide, but the struggle for power between two Islamic sects – Erdogan’s political party with origins in the Naqshbandi movement, and the Gülenists – who, until a few years ago, were allies in an effort to root out the traditional state establishment.

Both Erdogan and Gülen represent slightly esoteric Sunni Muslim movements stemming from the same root, the Khalidi branch of the Naqshbandi Sufi order (See article). As such, none of the deep theological divides in the Muslim world are at play. This is not the Sunni-Shi’a divide, nor is it the Salafi-Sufi animosity. It is not even the division between the modernists of the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-Orthodox Takfiris. To a significant degree, it is simply a struggle for power. Yet there are subtle but profound differences between the two sides, which have implications for Turkey’s future.

Before 2001, the Gülen movement kept a clear distance from Erdoğan’s political Islamic milieu. The two developed a tactical alliance that may have been destined to collapse as soon as their common enemy was defeated.

Erdogan’s AKP was a face-lifted version of the Milli Görüş (National Outlook) movement that was born in the 1960s out of the Naqshbandi movement – an order that stands out for its Sunni orthodoxy, its anti-colonial and anti-western nature, and its politicization. Milli Görüş came to be heavily influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, but it remained essentially parochial and closed. (See pp. 12-23 in Turkey Transformed) Most importantly, Milli Görüş never remotely had the manpower to run the Turkish state in a professional way.

That is where the Gülen movement came in. It draws from the Nurcu community, an offshoot from the Naqshbandi tradition. But the Nurcu movement’s founder, Said-i-Nursi, differed from the Naqshbandis in seeking to wed modernity and Islam, and in his acceptance of the republic. Fethullah Gülen built on that tradition, and developed it further: first, by focusing strongly on finding and pooling talent through educational institutions that provide secular learning in a religious setting; and second, by leaving the confines of Turkey and going global.

While Milli Görüş confronted the secular republic head on, Gülen adapted to – and even benefited from – it. Particularly after the 1980 military coup, which aimed to destroy the political left, the junta created the synthesis of Turkish nationalism and Sunni Islam as the ideological backbone of Turkish society. Milli Görüş was pan-Islamic and had little interest in Turkish nationalism, but the Gülen movement had a nationalist inclination too. Moreover, Milli Görüş was overtly political, while Gülen’s network was so only subtly, eschewing politics and focusing instead on developing its influence in the bureaucracy, in business circles and society. It became the primary beneficiary of the “Turkish-Islamic Synthesis”.

Notably, in 1996 Gülen kept his distance from Necmettin Erbakan, Turkey’s first overtly Islamist Prime Minister; in fact, his network subtly lent support to the centrist parties that were Erbakan’s rivals. Gülen also personally defended the military intervention that ousted Erbakan in 1997. But Gülen’s fortunes then took a turn for the worse, and he was forced to leave the country. The reason was the publication in 1998 of a leaked video recording in which Gülen in unambiguous terms urged his followers to infiltrate the state, but to lay low until such a time that they would be able to control it from within. This attracted the interest of several prosecutors, and centrist Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit, who had a good relationship with Gülen, advised him to leave for “medical treatment” in the United States, where he remains to this day.

The fortunes of the Gülen movement were revived after AKP came to power in 2002. A tactical alliance between the two Islamic movements saw the day. They shared a common target: to gain control over the state establishment, and the Gülen movement provided the cadres that the AKP lacked. Through a series of confrontations from 2007 through 2010, the AKP government managed to discredit, unseat, and in part incarcerate the republican establishment. Police officers, prosecutors, judges, and journalists aligned with the Gülen movement staged show trials based on fabricated evidence.  The Gülen movement’s role could easily be inferred. By 2009, the purges had come to focus particularly on opponents not just of political Islam but of the Gülenists: the Association for Support of Contemporary Life, a charitable organization providing secularist education for the poor; Hanefi Avci, a police chief who published a book detailing the Gülenist infiltration of the force; and most blatantly Ahmet Şık, the leftist author of a devastating book on the Gülen movement. Erdogan has later claimed he was hoodwinked by the Gülenists, but at the time, he declared himself the “prosecutor of Ergenekon”, meeting weekly with the prosecutors to stay informed on the case. Until his own relationship with the Gülen movement collapsed, Erdogan had little trouble with the jailing of secularists on flimsy grounds. 

The 2010 referendum on constitutional amendments  gave the Gülenists full control over the judiciary. Yet the movement was not satisfied. Ahead of the general elections of June 2011, the Gülenists informed Erdoğan that they wanted at least a third of the AKP parliamentary contingent, as well as access to the State Intelligence Organization (MIT). Having done away with their enemies, the two groups’ main concern was now how to deal with each other.

IMPLICATIONS: While the Gülenists were increasingly assertive, Erdoğan made it clear he was not ready to share power. His determination to concentrate power in his own hands further exacerbated the confrontation. In the 2011 elections, less than a handful of Gülenists were allowed in the party lists; Gülen responded by publishing an article on “arrogance”, naming no names but allowing his spokesmen to take on a visibly critical tone toward Erdoğan. In early 2012, Gülen-aligned prosecutors sought to arrest the leadership of the National Intelligence Organization, including its head, Erdoğan’s chief confidant Hakan Fidan. (See 2/20/2012 Turkey Analyst) The timing was no accident, occurring at the time of Erdoğan’s worst health problems. Erdoğan concluded that he was next in line to be arrested after Fidan, and used his authority to fend off the prosecutors. Soon thereafter, the government launched an education reform designed to check the primacy of the Gülen movement in the area of education. (see 4/2/2012 Turkey Analyst) In 2013, Erdoğan (probably incorrectly) saw a Gülenist hand in the Gezi Park protests. Later the same year, the government announced new legislation that would ban the preparatory schools that provided some of the Gülen movement’s income and most of its recruits. (See 12/4/2013 Turkey Analyst) That prompted the Gülenist counter-strike of December 17, 2013: the arrest wave targeting four ministers and their entourage, and the subsequent publication on the internet of large amounts of incriminating evidence of large-scale corruption in Erdoğan’s family and inner circle. (See 12/18/2013 and 1/15/2013 Turkey Analyst) Only by rapid executive action was Erdoğan able to avoid a second arrest wave on December 25, which was to target members of his family. (See 2/12/2014 Turkey Analyst)

Erdoğan accused Gülen of leading a criminal gang controlled by outside forces; Gülen answered with a dramatic, televised sermon in which he called on the wrath of God to strike the sinners. Purges of Gülenists within the state bureaucracy intensified, while Gülenist outlets continued to release and publicize incriminating information on Erdoğan. Sensing his weakness, Erdoğan in turn struck an anti-Gülenist alliance with the General Staff, as a result of which jailed officers were released.

Subsequently, the Gülenists in the police were purged, which proved crucial. The coup attempt on July 15 might have succeeded if the police had still been controlled by the movement. However, the purges did not extend to the military. Yet the Gülenists were known to have a substantial presence in the military, although the level of influence they had achieved came as shock to most observers. The Gülen network had managed to cook the entrance exams to military colleges, obtaining the questions ahead of time and distributing them among its followers. Erdoğan pushed for a purge of the Gülenists from the military, but the General Staff, seeking to avoid another dramatic purge, resisted until the last moment, finally conceding the week before the putsch. The fact that the coup was precipitated by the impending purge of Gülenist officers on July 16 is clear evidence that the network was behind it. There is also considerable anecdotal evidence indicating that higher-ranking officers took orders from their subordinates on July 15 – something that indicates a parallel hierarchy in a secretive organization, very much like the Gülen movement. The faceless nature of the coup – no coup leader has even been identified – is a similar indication, and follows the modus operandi of earlier Gülenist operations.

Most important, however, is the question of motive. Erdoğan had since 2014 been following the high command’s lead on the issue that matters most to it, the Kurdish issue. While the Kemalists in the military have no love lost for Erdoğan, they also had no reason to target him at that time. Only the Gülen movement had a clear and urgent motive to carry out the coup. This is not to say that all coup-makers were necessarily Gülenists; it appears that the military was split between those, like the high command, that sided with Erdoğan against the Gülenists, and others that sided with the Gülenists against Erdoğan.

CONCLUSIONS: The Erdoğan-Gülen conflict has dominated Turkish politics since 2012. It stands out by having been a battle for control within the Turkish state, which has left the country’s state institutions in ruins. The Gülen movement’s infiltration into state institutions has been far deeper than even its enemies alleged. Indeed, no one appears to have been aware of the full extent of their presence at high levels of the military.  This infiltration was made possible by none other than Erdoğan himself. The Gülen movement has worked toward this goal for the last four decades, but it was Erdoğan who opened the floodgates in 2003, only to try to slam them shut in 2013. Thus, for a decade, the Gülen movement had a free run to assert themselves in the state.

That leads to a third conclusion, a very relevant one going forward: Erdoğan and his AKP permitted Gülenist infiltration only because the orthodox Naqshbandi movement cannot provide the  qualified manpower to assert control of state institutions. By necessity, Erdoğan has always been forced to rely on tactical or strategic allies with other forces to maintain his power. This explains why the conflict with Gülen necessitated the alliance with the army leadership; and why presently, Erdoğan is courting the nationalist and even secularist forces in the bureaucracy to shore up his position. 

This suggests that Erdoğan will double down on his efforts to develop the imam-hatip schools under the TÜRGEV foundation run by his family, in order to build a new generation of loyal, Islamist cadres. But until that process is complete, which it will not be for another decade, Erdoğan’s position is considerably weaker than it looks. He has survived a near-lethal challenge, but his hold on the state remains tenuous.

The Turkish case provides a broader conclusion: it shows how the politicization of Islam unfailingly degenerates into a struggle for power between rival cults and sects. Whether this insight will strengthen those forces in Turkey, who plead for keeping religion and politics separate, remains to be seen.

Svante E. Cornell is Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, and publisher of the Turkey Analyst.


Image attribution:, accessed on September 6, 2016

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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